Fury as water firm's £200,000 fine for pollution is slashed

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An angling fanatic who won an unprecedented case against Anglian Water Services, one of Britain's worst serial polluters, expressed his dismay yesterday when the water company was let off £140,000 of the penalty.

Roy Hart, who lives on the river Crouch in Essex, said he was "sad" that three Appeal Court judges had reduced the fine for an incident in October 2001, when 200 tons of sewage were discharged from a treatment plant in Wickford into the river. Fish and even a swan living along a two-kilometre (1.25 mile) stretch of the river died.

In an appeal by the company, the judges ruled the initial fine was "manifestly excessive", given that Anglian had pleaded guilty, acted promptly to limit damage and "made sure measures were taken to prevent a reoccurence."

The initial fine of £200,000, awarded in Basildon Crown Court in 2002, was the largest single pollution fine issued last year; the next largest, of £190,000 was also awarded against Anglian Water Services, for an incident on Elstow brook, in Bedfordshire.

The £60,000 penalty left after the ruling is still one of last year's 10 largest, and means that Anglian Water Services was fined £354,000 for pollution in 2002, more than any other company. In that time, it made a profit of £332m.

Yesterday, the annual Spotlight pollution report by the Environment Agency showed that Anglian is one of just three companies - along with Thames Water Utilities and Welsh Water - that have been fined for pollution in every one of the past five years.

Mr Hart, the owner of an outdoor equipment firm whose office overlooks the river, made legal history by prosecuting the water company himself. He became frustrated with what he saw as delays by the Environment Agency, which would normally lead such cases. Mr Hart said the appeal judges should have seized the opportunity to increase the fine, "so the utilities never do it again. The power is in judges' hands to clean up Britain's beaches and rivers - they can do more with fines than any conservation group."

The reduction was also condemned by Craig Bennett, the corporate accountability campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "It's an astonishing and appalling decision, coming exactly one day after the Environment Agency report on polluters highlighted Anglian Water Services as a repeat offender," he said.

"Clearly, this company is a classic example of a company which sees pollution fines as a legitimate business expense and don't care about the environment. What is needed is fines that are significant in terms of these companies' turnover."

But Stephen Bolt, environmental standards manager for Anglian Water Services, denied bigger fines would make a difference. "We are pleased the judge agreed the fine was excessive," he said. "We believe the fine didn't reflect the nature of the offence. The river [had] recovered after 24 hours, and we felt our response was rapid."

He said the company already took pollution incidents very seriously, and larger fines would not prevent them: "We take these issues very seriously, because they undermine the longer-term good we're doing, such as improvements in rivers and bathing water."

The Environment Agency criticised Mr Hart for starting the case, claiming it was gathering data for the investigation itself and had had to help Mr Hart by providing expert witnesses and evidence.

But Mr Hart accused the agency of inaction, saying it had been slow to stop the leak at the sewage plant and then to bring the case against Anglian Water. "I called the agency at nine o'clock on the morning this happened, and they arrived at noon. Then, at 3pm, they were saying they couldn't find the right valve to turn off at the plant. I nearly threw the agency man in the river.

"Then because I had heard about the Stephen Lawrence case [in which the parents of the murdered black teenager brought a private prosecution against his alleged killers] I decided to bring my own case.

"The agency said it would end in a shambles. But the case showed that part of the plant wasn't working - that they could have been tipping anything in - because a key part had been sent for maintenance for three weeks and not been replaced," Mr Hart said.